- Research has attacked the problem of emotional eating using many different approaches.
- Our response to food involves much more than the basic senses of taste and smell.
- Instead of asking “why” did emotional eating happen, the more important question is “what” can I do now?
Every year, Precision Nutrition, a large nutrition coaching organization that aims to help individuals change their eating and exercise habits, takes a poll. It asks the simple question: What is your greatest challenge when it comes to weight loss and maintenance of weight loss? And, every year, answer #1 is the same: emotional/stress eating.
It is clear that emotional eating is a problem for many individuals, whether they are trying to lose weight or not. These results are in line with a large body of research that has identified emotional eating as a significant problem. But what is the cure? Greater self-efficacy? Growth mindset? Journaling? Mindfulness meditation? Applying more executive function? Or, is it greater self-awareness? Can people learn to identify their emotions around food more concisely to conquer the dreaded loss of control?
Taking a closer look at the problem
At one time or another, research has explored all of these avenues and more. Many of the findings are mixed, are drawn from short studies, or cannot clearly pinpoint cause and effect. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to track and measure emotions. The perception of liking a certain food can have many facets. How a person describes their emotional response to a food can depend on their age, gender, hunger status, previous experience of the food, culture, and genetics, and the flavor intensity of the food.
A recent article in the Journal of Food Science (2023) unpacks some of the physiology behind emotional responses to food. The article is about acute reactions to food, as well as what foods a person will be attracted to when under the influence of certain emotions. The article even states that food choices may be more driven by emotional impact, rather than perceived pleasantness. Importantly, they found that the foods we eat on a day-to-day basis will determine which foods become linked to positive memories.
Our sense of taste and smell are the two biggest senses when it comes to discerning the rewarding or punishing aspects of individual foods. But, in the brain, the centers for smelling and tasting are intimately connected to tracts and centers that monitor hunger, satiety, emotions, and memories.
As such, it is easy to see why a host of life experiences, habits, memories, and physiological responses can lead to an almost automatic response to food in certain situations.
Research supports the observation that many people “tune out” during some eating experiences, especially those driven by an emotion that may be unpleasant to them. This can make it difficult to identify what emotions are driving it.
A big driver of emotional eating is stress. It may come from work, relationships, general living situation, or even lack of sleep. It has long been known that restrictive eating (a.k.a., dieting) causes stress. Research tells us that food restriction can easily lead to a bingeing response, or a strong urge to go back to previous eating habits.
Nutritional status can also have a lot to do with it. If someone is used to consuming high-energy, processed foods, an emotional response that leads to seeking food can be stronger. These foods are designed to feel more inherently rewarding.
Teasing out some solutions
Logic would tell us that self-awareness training could be helpful.
Harvard Business Review (2018) has an article showcasing a research study involving nearly 5,000 participants. Interestingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), although most people believe they are self-aware, it’s actually fairly rare. Their estimate is that only 10 to 15 percent of the people they studied actually fit the criteria.
They identified two types of self-awareness: internal self-awareness, and external self-awareness. Internal self-awareness is related to how our thoughts, feelings, and actions impact ourselves and others. External self-awareness is the understanding of how other people view us, having empathy, and understanding other people’s perspectives.
How does this relate to emotional eating? Interestingly, the Harvard article presented a fairly simple paradigm shift to use when finding yourself going down an emotional cul-de-sac that leads to uncontrolled food consumption.
Instead of asking “why” did that happen, the more important question is “what” can I do now? That’s because many of us cannot always discern an accurate “why” for the action. As discussed above, we just don’t have access to many of the thoughts, feelings, and motives we are searching for.
On the other hand, highly self-aware individuals in their study were more often than not to ask “what.” This question leads to creativity in formulating a solution and is empowering. “Why” can leave a person stuck in a cauldron of murky emotions, unable to formulate an answer.
There is another solution that can be huge when it comes to overcoming emotional eating. It is to make small changes toward a goal, slowly, over a period of time. Not only does this eliminate the stress of dieting, but it also gives a person the chance to focus on one habit/behavior at a time. A small change can make asking “what” am I doing to change this a lot easier. Taking one action at a time may make it possible to sort out the emotion behind a specific habitual choice. Facing a smorgasbord of behaviors and possibilities can lead to frustration and bewilderment. Making one small change at a time can be empowering and motivating as the small victories pile up.
Mastinu, M., Melis, M., Yousaf, N.Y., Barbarossa, I.T., Tepper, B.J. (2023). Emotional responses to taste and smell stimuli: Self-reports, physiological measures, and a potential role for individual and genetic factors. Journal of Food Science. 88:A65–A90.
Tomiyama, A. J., et al. (2010). Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosom Med. 72(4): 357–364.
Eurich, T. (2018). What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It). Harvard Business Review.